Orlando, FL – New details have emerged that may shed more light on the extreme casualty count in the Orlando nightclub killings. On Monday, Orlando Police Chief John Mina intimated that some of the victims may have been killed by officers trying to perform a rescue operation.
“I will say this, that’s all part of the investigation,” Mina said. “But I will say when our SWAT officers, about eight or nine officers, opened fire, the backdrop was a concrete wall, and they were being fired upon.”
A confidential law enforcement source close to the investigation said a crowd of up to 300 people within the club — combined with the complex layout of the structure — may have resulted in numerous patrons being struck by gunfire from officers, according to WFAA-ABC 8.
Mina stood by his decision to employ a tactical strike amidst the rising likelihood that a number of the dead were the result of “friendly fire” from officers.
“It was a hard decision to make, but it was the right decision,” he said. “Our No. 1 priority is on saving lives, and it was the right decision to make.”
Details of the investigation are a being pieced together by local, federal and state investigators, as they continue to process the gruesome scene from a number of law enforcement mobile command units.
Authorities have determined that Mateen, 29, walked to the club at 2:02 a.m. armed with a semi-automatic long rifle and a Glock handgun.
An off-duty police officer working security at the club was outside investigating an underage drinker when he heard gunshots inside the club. The off-duty officer then proceeded to run inside the club and exchange gunfire with Mateen, with three additional officers soon arriving to back up the off-duty cop, law enforcement sources told WFAA-ABC 8. As the officers fired at Mateen, he retreated into a bathroom toward the rear of the club with a number of hostages.
“Those additional officers made entry while the suspect was shooting,” Mina said. “They forced him to stop shooting and retreat to the bathroom where we believe he had several hostages.”
While in the bathroom Mateen called 911 three times, pledging his allegiance to the Islamic State during one of the calls, although currently he has no known affiliation with any specific terrorist group. Mateen has been linked with American suicide bomber Moner Abu-Salha — who drove 16 tons of explosives into a Syrian government facility on behalf of Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in late May of that year. The men had also attended the same Eastern Florida mosque.
It has since come to light that he was a regular at the gay club, which raises serious questions about the credibility of his Islamist “terrorist” connection, and raises the possibility that Mateen suffered from severe identity issues that manifested in violence. The FBI confirmed that Mateen had been on their radar and had been interviewed on 3 separate occasions.
“He was in one bathroom fortified with hostages,” Mina said. “There were people in the opposing bathroom, about 15 or 20 people. And the details are unknown, they’re part of the investigation.”
Orlando police crisis negotiators that spoke with Mateen said he remained calm during the talks, but that he intimated that he intended to kill more people, Mina said.
“Based off statements made by the suspect and based on information we received by the suspect and from the hostages and the people inside,” Mina said, “we believe further loss of life was imminent. I made the decision to commence the rescue operation and do the explosive breach.”
The SWAT team attempted to topple the exterior wall leading to the bathroom that held 15 to 20 people, but failed, so Mina decided to use a Bearcat to break a hole in the wall. The vehicle rammed the wall, creating a small opening — about 3 feet wide and 2 feet off the ground — that captives could use to escape.
“We were able to rescue dozens and dozens of people who came out of that wall,” Mina said. “The suspect came out of that hole himself with a handgun and a long gun and engaged in a gunbattle with officers where he was ultimately killed.”
Mateen engaged officers immediately, striking one of them in his helmet, as officers returned fire striking the assailant several times.
The exterior concrete wall where the siege occurred is dotted with dozens of bullet holes, evidence of a shootout that included dozens of rounds fired by officers that likely hit and killed many hostages.
The final exchange of gunfire Mateen had with law enforcement occurred at 5 a.m., ending the three-hour ordeal. Officers then walked into the nightclub and found the dead bodies of club patrons strewn about the club, with more bodies found in a nearby bathroom.
There is a strong likelihood that we will never find out how many of the victims were ultimately killed by “friendly fire”.